Newsweek

Kim Jong Un and the Art of the Deal

For years, he's been seen as a naïf or a madman. But what if Kim Jong Un is the smartest guy in the room?
Kim Image New Source: Illustration by Nigel Buchanan for Newsweek

In early 2012, a few months after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was buried in an elaborate state ­funeral, I found myself in the Pyongyang office of a man named James Kim. He’s an evangelical Christian, a veteran of the Korean War and a former political prisoner in North Korea. He is also the founder of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is how he met Kim Jong Il. As we spoke, James talked about attending the funeral and how he encountered the Dear Leader’s son, a portly 29-year-old named Kim Jong Un.

Back then, the conventional view was that the young Kim was too inexperienced to maintain a tight grip on power like his father and grandfather before him. He’d attended junior high school in Switzerland, loved to play basketball and was a huge fan of Michael Jordan—strands of normality that some latched on to, perhaps hoping this Kim would be different. Could he possibly open up the economy and give his people a whiff of the prosperity their neighbors enjoyed? Could he persuade his generals to slow their relentless race to a nuclear bomb, which so alarmed the outside world?

Sitting in his office on the university

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